They grew up in Brainerd, share a belief in its potential and a deep, abiding Christian faith and dedicated their lives — not only to hard work and career — but to helping others.
Later this month those efforts of leadership by example by Kevin Close and Rod Converse will be honored with the Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation 2011 Award in Philanthropy.
Both men, whose names are familiar across the landscape as Close-Converse Preferred and Commercial Properties, were hesitant to be singled out saying others have given much more. But they were honored by the selection. The choice made perfect sense to Mike Burton, Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation director.
“These men epitomize philanthropy, professionalism and a deep, spiritual thoughtfulness of others both in our area and around the country and the world. Few fit the protocol of this award more than Kevin and Rod,” Burton said in a written statement.
Close and Converse formed a business partnership that has endured about 37 years. The roots of that partnership were formed when they worked together at Goedker Realty. Their first investment together was a $4,000 duplex in northeast Brainerd.
“We overpaid,” Close said.
“We had a few investments that were better than that over the years and a few that were worse than that,” Converse said.
Converse said their partnership endured through the years because they never allowed money to come between them and they were fortunate to have their wives as guides.
“Their wisdom is important,” Close said.
Kevin and Terri Close, Rod and Avis Converse all grew up in Brainerd. Of the group, Kevin Close, is the Johnny-come-lately, arriving in the city as an eighth-grader in the 1960s. Close and Converse graduated from Brainerd High School. They went to Central Lakes College together. Before the business Close-Converse partnership formed, Kevin Close and Avis Converse commuted to St. Cloud State University. Avis said she heard a lot about baseball during those drives. The two couples were married two weeks apart and will celebrate their 40th anniversaries this year.
Other than a five-year stint in Iowa to grow their Bonanza Steakhouse restaurants, building them in Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota, they’ve called the lake region home. In the late ‘70s real estate was a tough business with high interest rates at 22 percent. The early ‘80s brought on a difficult economic recession. At that time they were developing the Parkwood and Buffalo Hills area. It was hard to sell lots, house prices were down and there was little liquidity.
That’s when they looked outside the area and invested in Bonanza. Once those restaurants were established, the couples returned to the Brainerd lakes area. The time away solidified what they appreciated about central Minnesota. And after five years of not being involved in real estate, they fell back into it.
Their Christian faith led them to want to help others in the Brainerd area and with other missions of choice across the nation and the world.
“God gives all of us some financial, he gives all of us some talent, and he gives all of us some time — and we choose what portion of that we give back,” Converse said. He noted the quote, often attributed to Winston Churchill, saying — “you make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give.”
“Everybody out there has something to give,” Converse said. “The important thing is giving back to your community.”
Thirteen years ago at a bible study group they talked about the need for a vehicle for long-term giving in the Brainerd lakes area and they were part of forming the Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation. Converse said they were blessed to be part of the foundation’s start.
Close said they’ve learned giving with a commitment is more fulfilling that just giving money.
“When you have a passion for something and you are involved with something and you are also giving money I think the fulfillment is so much greater,” Close said. “I think it’s a gift we get by giving to things we are passion about.”
For Converse, passions include Compassion International, a Christian-based sponsorship ministry, sponsoring children in Kenya and Uganda and efforts on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. For Close, passions include The Truth Project by Focus on the Family and Minnesota Teen Challenge, ministerial groups, along with Kinship Partners along with involvement in other area organizations. Close donates his time to Teen Challenge and said for men who have had tough experiences in life, it’s a reminder what God’s love can do and what people’s love can do.
They said in giving people a chance, such as sponsoring children, people are changing more lives than they know as one life touches so many others.
“Throw the pebble in the pond and watch where God takes the ripples,” Converse said. “Never underestimate what a small amount will do to change the world.”
Close is also involved with Harvest Evangelism, an effort to transform places through prayer and an effort for unity.
The two men said people may think philanthropy is only for the well-to-do, but giving back to community isn’t limited to the wealthy and a little giving goes a long way to change individual lives.
The men said in accepting the award they hope to increase awareness of all the good people can do in the community and thus energize themselves in the process.
“I think we are all happiest when we are giving,” Avis Converse said.
Terri Close said in giving, especially in moments where life is challenging, it’s a way to “take your focus off yourself.”
Changing the world, even a little bit at a time, through prayer, or time, talent or treasure, can seem a daunting and impossible task. Converse recalled a quote, saying “You can’t change the world, but you can change the world for one.”
So later this month, two men who have lived that belief beyond the mere words will be honored for that effort with the hopes others will be inspired by their example.
“It’s certainly an honor to come from this town and have this town mean as much as it does to us and this area,” Close said.
The BLACF is a public charity. Since 1998, it has grown to more than $5 million in assets and awarded nearly $2 million in grants to area nonprofits. The foundation is affiliated with the Central Minnesota Community Foundation, which administers more than 500 funds of more than $65 million.
The foundation’s Award in Philanthropy, created to recognize those who are working to build a better community and thus are inspiring others, is now in its seventh year. Past recipients include the Cote family, JoAnn and Arnie Johnson, Kathy and Bruce Buxton, Linda and Bernie Roberts, Fran and Clarence Holden, and John Sullivan.
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5852.